SALT LAKE CITY — Recently, Utah’s Uintah Elementary has come under fire for a disturbing incident: Last week, some 40 students had their $2 school lunches taken away. Why? Their parents were behind in payments to the school lunch program.
Now the Salt Lake City school district is vowing to make broad changes to ensure it never happens again.
On Tuesday, child nutrition department director Kelly Orton delivered a brief report to the school board. He blamed the incident on two things: violations of agency rules and a failure to notify parents that their children’s lunch accounts were empty or in the negative.
“We took food trays away and embarrassed students, and for that I am sorry,” Orton’s report says. “No child will have their meal tray taken away ever again.”
Official Says Won’t Happen Again
To avoid that happening again, Orton said, new rules have been created for kitchen managers. The district also plans to do a better job of letting parents know about their account balances. Parents will receive messages when their account is at $10, when it’s empty, and then every day after as money owed builds up.
The incident occurred on Jan. 28 when students trying to buy lunch had their meals thrown away, angering parents and stirring outrage around the country. The district told a cafeteria manager and a district supervisor not to come to work as the investigation got underway last week.
The report didn’t indicate whose decision it was to toss the lunches.
The children who had their meals thrown out were given milk and fruit instead, a standard practice when students don’t have lunch money.
Several dozen parents attended the meeting. Some said the report was vague and that the cafeteria worker who was asked not to come to work was being unfairly blamed.
Some parents urged district leaders to hold Orton and his staff accountable.
“The lunchroom staff should not be held accountable for the policies implemented by their supervisors,” said Lynn Lonardo. Her daughter’s lunch, she added, was among those taken away last week.
“We Share Your Real Horror”
But Heather Bennett, board vice president, said the cafeteria worker and district supervisor weren’t told not to come to work as a punishment.
District Superintendent McKell Withers said the leave was meant to protect the two workers from threats. Indeed, several threatening phone calls were made to the school following the incident. Police, however, found they didn’t represent any real danger. School officials refused to identify the two workers on leave, saying this was in order to protect them.
Bennett and other board members said they were as upset as the parents who attended the meeting.
“We share your real horror” at the incident “that brought us here,” she said.
Under board member questioning, Orton said his department didn’t properly tell parents about a new electronic payment system. He promised efforts to prevent meals from being tossed again.
New Electronic System Blamed
Many parents were unaware that the lunch programs’ new electronic system makes it harder to set up email alerts about balances, Orton said. While the new system is cheaper and faster, it doesn’t automatically send out messages like the old system did. Thus parents now have to try harder to keep track of payments on their own.
The department, he said, failed to get that “information out effectively.”
The report gave general fixes for avoiding a similar incident in the future. Orton said meals will never again be taken from kids and that parents will be notified of low balances. Students will still be able to receive meals for a week after accounts dip below zero.
Some parents weren’t satisfied by the report. It was still unclear, they said, what the payment system’s problems were and who was responsible for taking away the lunches.
“It was never answered who decided this,” commented parent Sarah Turley, who said her child had her lunch tossed. That question of accountability and responsibility has never been answered, she said.